Chicago

Marcel Broodthaers, Portrait of Maria Gilissen with Tripod, 1967, gelatin silver emulsion on canvas with tripod, approx. 66 x 43 x 24". From “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977.”

Marcel Broodthaers, Portrait of Maria Gilissen with Tripod, 1967, gelatin silver emulsion on canvas with tripod, approx. 66 x 43 x 24". From “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977.”

“Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977”

The Art Institute of Chicago

Marcel Broodthaers, Portrait of Maria Gilissen with Tripod, 1967, gelatin silver emulsion on canvas with tripod, approx. 66 x 43 x 24". From “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977.”

For a time, the consensus on Conceptual art was that it had to do with “dematerialization” or “idea”; after a while, though, it began to seem better to read the specificity of Conceptualism through its emphasis on language. But in recent years, there has been a shift away from seeing language as Conceptualism’s distinguishing attribute to what might seem a somewhat surprising element: photography. In the past, there was a tendency to strategically ignore photography’s role as a medium, since Conceptualists often treated the camera as a simple artless recording device, leaving “fine art” photography to the likes of Ansel Adams. In more recent years, that polarity has largely been blurred. Thus in her 2007 book, Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art, Liz Kotz discerned the boundary between Fluxus and Conceptual art, not in terms of any distinct approach to language, the ostensible subject of her study, but in the Conceptualists’ use of photography, evidence of the “larger shift from the perception-oriented and ‘participatory’ post-Cagean paradigms of the early 1960s to the overtly representational, systematized, and self-reflexive structures of Conceptual art.”

If anyone still questioned just how crucial photography—or perhaps it would be better to say “the photographic”—really was to Conceptual art, Matthew S. Witkovsky’s exhibition “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977” should have put all doubts to rest. Featuring 144 works by fifty-seven artists and groups, it amply demonstrated the centrality of photography to Conceptual art; as a result, Witkovsky says, the medium “became a paradigmatic form of contemporary art.” But as my tentative suggestion of the phrase “the photographic” to replace “photography” might indicate, I’m still not sure that the photograph-as-such is quite to the point. Witkovsky cites Rosalind Krauss’s notion of a “post-medium” condition, and the work in “Light Years” seems to validate it. To use the category “photograph” to encompass, for example, the picture postcards on the backs of which On Kawara stamped the words I GOT UP; the immaculately “straight” gelatin silver prints of Bernd and Hilla Becher; Joseph Kosuth’s photostatic reproductions of dictionary definitions; photographs printed on canvas and then stretched, by Giulio Paolini, John Baldessari, and others; magazine pieces interspersing text with images such as those of Robert Smithson and Mel Bochner (in these pages) or Dan Graham (in Arts Magazine); the alchemical combustion of defaced landscape photographs in Anselm Kiefer’s early book works; Giuseppe Penone’s projection of a single slide onto a plaster cast; and Hans-Peter Feldmann’s framed, hand-colored photocopies of postcards—not to mention films and even holograms—is to really beg the question. The photograph may have been paradigmatic, as Witkovsky says, but which species of photograph? Here, the paradigms seem up for grabs.

But maybe that’s good: Four decades later, this art still proposes more answers than one knows what to do with—perhaps to questions yet to be asked. In New York, not long after seeing “Light Years,” I happened to run into one of the artists whose work is prominently represented in the show; he said that he hadn’t been able to make it out to the opening but wondered if all of the works looked the same. I was happy to be able to tell him that, to the contrary, the art looked wonderfully varied: Yes, there was a repeated effort to think through the relationship between art and photography, but this was explored in a wide variety of forms—each artist contributing in his or her own way. The result is not a synthesis, however; the show was more of a compendium—one wherein the contents still appeared fresh and unorthodox enough to have rendered any ambition to give a definitive account happily unfulfilled.

Barry Schwabsky